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Who Took the Flowers Out of my Prose?

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013 | Posted by Connor Gormley

Conan Red Nails-smallOver here in England, we have a shop called ‘Poundland,’ which is pretty much what it says on the tin: a shop where everything costs a single pound, and for a boy of about ten, it was a dream come true. All the flimsy toys, dodgy sweets and budget DVDs my little mind could conjure — there was a book section as well, but it mostly consisted of either absolute rubbish or books about Simon Cowell.

But one particular day, when I was about ten, I happened to spot a diamond hidden amongst the rubbish: an anthology of stories by Robert E Howard. I’d never heard of him at the time, but the book had Conan in the title.

I had heard of Conan. My brief experience with the two movies told me I liked big swords, big monsters, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as much as the next ten-year-old, so I decided to buy it. On the train ride home, I found myself introduced to a new, vivid, and lively world, one of blood and savagery, of death and shadow, of lurking devils and skulking gods. I was exposed to a land of witchcraft, sorcerers, devils and demons, nations torn apart by brooding crusaders kings and swashbuckling puritans. It was the best train ride of my life.

“That’s all well and good, Connor,” you might say, “but what’s this got to do with prose?” Show a little patience; I’m getting to that.

What enchanted me most throughout these adventures was the prose; it just had its own nature and flavor, its own distinguished way of presenting things. I’d never encountered anything like it before; it was poetic, haunting, powerful. It lent every blow a sort of impact, made every monster tangible. Even the heroes — too powerful, too fast, too smart to ever be real — it made them come alive.

And in fantasy, where a key aspect is immersion, this is an impressive achievement. I touched upon this not too long ago with my Fantasy Face-off article; noting that prose dictates the way we see the world on the page and, therefore, how vivid and real it is. Prose overshadows flaws when it’s successful and highlights them when it’s not.

But what I didn’t mention was how prose can amplify the tone of the book. Fritz Leiber’s prose is rather light, reflecting the comic, satirical feel of his books. Howard’s is fast, rip-roaring and powerful, much like the pacing of his books and the characters within them. Tolkien’s prose, though it can sometimes be lacking, feels reminiscent of a fairy tale.

The Harsh SunsThey all impact the experience. Red Nails wouldn’t feel quite so turbo-charged if the prose felt like trudging through gravy, would it? And the action wouldn’t feel quite so dramatic if the prose were flat.

And sometimes a good line, a powerful line, can send shivers down the spine. And that is pretty damn awesome.

Unfortunately, modern fantasy seems, for the most part, to neglect prose. And that’s a shame, because it means all those distinct literary personalities — the whimsy of Leiber, the melancholy of Moorcock, and the fury of Howard — are a thing of the past.

Everyone seems to have adopted the same bland, middle ground style that isn’t really anything above functional. That’s even the case with recent books I’ve enjoyed, like James Barclay’s Dawnthief and the novels of David Gemmell.

Don’t get me wrong — there are a few standouts. I love Jason E. Thummel’s prose and I found the Saga of Beowulf by R. Scot Johns (whom no one seems to have heard of but me) really drew me into the fiction.

And don’t misunderstand, I love David Gemmell. His characters are excellently done, with believable flaws and sympathetic motivations (yes, even Druss) and I really enjoyed Barclay’s Dawnthief.

But I just miss that passion fantasy and prose once shared. For me, at least, that passion is gone.

Now all that’s left between them is a bit of fumbling in the dark.

26 Comments »

  1. I think you’ve hit upon something here. For example, I love Martin’s Ice and Fire books, but there’s something missing, or very different, when compared to the old-school fantasy books. In fact, when I hear non-genre fans rave about Martin’s books, the things they mention highlight the soap opera/drama aspects of the books. The fact that they are set in a supernatural fantasy realm seems completely superfluous to these fans.

    Not a criticism–just an observation.

    Comment by James McGlothlin - September 18, 2013 11:34 am

  2. This is just a guess, but maybe the shift in prose styling in fantasy stems from the backlash against the overwrought prose in a lot of stuff from the boom in the 60s-70s. I for one look to a writers style as much as substance, otherwise it just won’t click for me. Howard’s style- that power, that fury -is what made me fall in love with reading in the first place.

    Comment by J.A. Woods - September 18, 2013 12:04 pm

  3. […] Who Took the Flowers Out of my Prose? […]

    Pingback by Karavansara - September 18, 2013 12:06 pm

  4. Great article. It’s something I hadn’t ever been able to nail down. Because, Howard has always been my favorite, despite that there are many authors who I know write better and even have better and more realistic stories.
    There has always been something so believable about Howard’s tales to me despite their over-the-topness or unreality. I’ve stated in reviews of his work that the realism of Howard’s writing was in between the lines. And somehow I always felt a kinship with Howard himself. He’s stories would stick in my mind like no one else’s, Like I’ve been mowing a lawn and caught myself wondering about how many primitive feet has tread that same ground, if ancient mortal battles had been fought there, or forgotten civilizations had once stood here. I don’t think Howard’s stories would’ve had impacted me like that if it wasn’t for his prose.

    Comment by kid_greg - September 18, 2013 12:17 pm

  5. Hi all

    Thanks for the response and taking the time out to read the post!
    It’s nice to see people agree, I’m not too sure everyone would but I was sure it would make for great disscussion

    Anyways, James, I agree with you in that the song of ice and fire does feel a little soapy in that respect, and, with regards to your thoughts that the setting is lost on its non-genre audience, I’m also inclined to agree. Maybe it’s because a lot of newer fantasy has this wild obsession with realism, and it’s one that baffles me. I mean this is fantasy. Why in gods name would it need realism?

    And ja woods, I hadn’t really considered that but it makes sense.A lot of sense. Heres a thought though: it seems like we’ve gone from one extreme to another; from over saturating the genre with OTT adventure stories in the sixties we are now saturating it with down to earth, grimy, amoral conflicts sometimes closer to historical fiction then fantasy. Maybe we need a middleground. Again just food for thought.

    Comment by Connor Gormley - September 18, 2013 1:46 pm

  6. Oops!

    Sorry, all that babbaling I didn’t mention kid greg, thanks again for reading. You make a fine point; and it is intresting to wonder if Howard would have been quite as successful if he weren’t so gifted with prose…

    Comment by Connor Gormley - September 18, 2013 1:49 pm

  7. Not to get off subject, Conner. Have you reviewed Jason E. Thummel’s books? I would like read your thoughts on them.

    I love the reto-“Frazetta-like”-primal covers and the titles, but haven’t read ’em yet.

    Comment by kid_greg - September 18, 2013 2:16 pm

  8. I’ read in ‘savage lands’ back when I first discovered black gate and when it first came out. It was a collection of some short stories by thumell and you can get it quite cheaply on the kindle store. They’re awesome. His prose is excellent, very Howard esque and his stories all have that lovable pulpy vibe. So that comes highly recommended, although I haven’t review it
    I’m yet to read his other work, but I believe he has a piece on here called ‘the duellist’ which,though his prose is slightly different. I still enjoyed it. Thoroughly enjoyed it.
    So yeah give him a try, I’d say start with ‘in savage lands’ but a review sounds like a fine idea for the future
    Hope that helps
    Connor

    Comment by Connor Gormley - September 18, 2013 2:38 pm

  9. Yeah, that’s something that’s irked me about Gemmell’s books, too. I also enjoy his work but it can be strangely lacking in atmosphere despite all the abominable things and situations his characters face.

    Comment by andy - September 18, 2013 3:50 pm

  10. Connor (if I may call you Connor,) have you read Steven Erikson? I doubt you would find his prose style middling. But yes, modern writers do tend to eschew the poetic. Writing guides and gurus preach avoidance of the adverb, to keep the sentence short, to avoid constructions that might slow the reader. That, I think, contributes to result you’ve noticed.

    Comment by Ken Lizzi - September 18, 2013 5:35 pm

  11. Hi ken

    Yep, I do recall reading a bit of erikson, but, his work always struck me as one of those door stopper epics that just keeps on going and going- we all know the type- and where I prefer faster more direct fantasy I didn’t get too deep.
    I do, however, remember liking his prose but I hadn’t read enough of him to say anything.
    And your theory does make sense and more modern prose tends to be direct. And in todays world of instant gratification that’s fairly apt.

    Comment by Connor Gormley - September 18, 2013 5:47 pm

  12. Connor,
    Thanks for this blog. I totally agree. I’ve been a fan of Howard’s ever since I started reading his stories. Yes, he has an excellent vocabulary but it isn’t just words. It’s that plus passion and I call it poetic prose because sometimes that is exactly what it is. What he does with adjectives in describing mood and action—setting the tone for a story—definitely deserves a course in writing.
    Thanks again,
    BB

    Comment by Barbara Barrett - September 18, 2013 8:54 pm

  13. Howard definitely had the gift — part natural talent, and part the influence of everything he was reading back in the day (which I believe included a fair amount of poetry).

    I wonder if part of the reason you don’t see it so much these days is because when it’s not done well it can go so very, very wrong; and these days, most people who write fantasy are coming at it, first and foremost, as fans of the genre, steeped in its traditions but maybe not casting as wide a net outside the genre.

    Comment by Joe H. - September 18, 2013 10:51 pm

  14. http://www.orbitbooks.net/excerpt/seven-princes-prologue/

    Comment by John R. Fultz - September 18, 2013 10:55 pm

  15. Howard’s prose captures the essence of characters, setting, and actions. Modern writers, in their efforts to provide every detail of a world and obsessive need to provide ‘depth’ to characters, ironically fail to do this. It’s like the difference between a Renaissance masterpiece and a traffic camera photo.

    Comment by Tyr - September 19, 2013 12:15 am

  16. I don’t think it’s just fantasy. Have you read a thriller by any of the well-known authors of the last decade? Most of them read like a screenplay. Action, dialogue, more action, dialogue, dialogue, etc.

    For instance, compare the works of James Patterson or Lee Child to those of Raymond Chandler or even Ed McBain. There’s a world of difference.

    A lot of writing today has lost its tone, not that that’s all bad. My personal opinion is there are two factors behind this: 1.) The attention span of the modern reading audience (blame TV and the Web if you like, many do), and 2.)Over the last few decades there seems to have been a general shift among book publishers toward fiction with less tone, probably in no small part because of No. 1 listed above, but perhaps also because younger, incoming editors possibly aren’t as familiar with older works.

    Now that I think about it, film might suffer the same situation. Look at today’s action movies. They’re all the same, for the most part, at least to me. Now compare them to “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” or even “Die Hard.”

    Or maybe I’m just getting old and grumpy. Kids, today, with their lack of tone and themes. What’s next? We gonna do away with grammars, punct’uation and speling?

    Comment by Ty Johnston - September 19, 2013 7:12 am

  17. Not sure I really buy the argument that modern fantasy “neglects prose.” It just seems like a massive generalization. Maybe you’ve got to dig around a little bit, but there’s plenty of fine prose stylists working today in fantasy- China Mieville comes to mind immediately. Storm Constantine. Jaqueline Carey. Clive Barker. Stephen R. Donaldson. GRRM. John Shirley.

    Comment by Golgonooza - September 19, 2013 9:06 am

  18. Hello again all
    Thanks for the comments, just wanted to respond to a few. I completely agree with Andy in that gem mel’s work, though I adore it does lack that certain little something when it comes to atmosphere and prose, which is a huge shame
    And ty, though I don’t tend to read thrillers, I really see what you mean, action films really do feel a bit samey; protagonists seem the same and so do the antagonists. Good god it’s frustrating. Good to see I’m not the only one :)

    And golgonzoona, I get what you’re saying and I did mention a few highlights In R scot Jones and Jason e thummell (both of whom id highly recommend) its just I find it irritating that one has to dig to find personality and effort in prose :)

    Comment by Connor Gormley - September 19, 2013 11:00 am

  19. Excellent observations, Connor, as well as those by the others here. Modern fiction style really has flattened out. I myself do like some simple and minimalist work, and the strong purple prose as was done by many in the old pulps is too much for me to enjoy now. But! Ted Rypel’s Gonji series may provide what you’d like to read; he and I have had this very discussion frequently. Also, because style is such an ambiguous term, I find myself interpreting it as the way some writers pace their sentences and paragraphs, write their dialogue, choose their words. The older I get and the more I write, the more I try to take these aspects of the craft seriously. Such care can add depth and resonance on a subconscious level for the reader. One thing more: you might want to take a look at an essay of mine in the latest issue of The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies. The piece is titled “The Writer’s Style: Sound and Syntax in Howard’s Sentences.” His use of diction and syntax, particularly in much of the material he wrote in his early twenties, is quite remarkable. Later on, I feel, he “matured” into a less prosodic and more practical style for the general line of pulp magazines he was targeting, but the Kull and early Conan stories contain examples of artistry of a high level: word sounds, imagery, pacing, symbolism. Some of this is straight up brilliant.

    Comment by David C. Smith - September 19, 2013 8:02 pm

  20. David, excellent points about the changes in Howard’s writing as he aged. And I think you’re right about his style becoming more practical for the pulps. Also, I have to wonder if he was moving away from his earlier style because he was working less in fantasy near the end there, but was leaning more toward historical fiction.

    Also, is The Dark Man available in a digital format? I’d love to read your article.

    Comment by Ty Johnston - September 19, 2013 10:23 pm

  21. Ty, I’m almost certain that The Dark Man is available in digital format. You could check the Facebook page of The Dark Man or email Mark Hall, the editor, at mhall940@yahoo.com. Or, even simpler, send me your email address and I’ll email you a copy of the article: daves1952@att.net.

    Comment by David C. Smith - September 20, 2013 10:28 am

  22. Great post, and I really will have to read David C. Smith’s essay on Howard’s prose. One thought that came to me is that Howard’s writing may be so intense and passionate because he mainly wrote short form fiction. Today’s fantasy writers are turning out 500 page tomes, and I doubt even Howard could maintain his style over such a long stretch. And he didn’t last that long. So maybe like the man said. “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.”

    Comment by John Whalen - September 20, 2013 9:23 pm

  23. Ty, I’m almost certain that The Dark Man is available in digital format. You could check the Facebook page of The Dark Man or email Mark Hall, the editor, at mhall940@yahoo.com. Or, even simpler, send me your email address and I’ll email you a copy of the article: daves1952@att.net. John, let me know if you, too, would like a copy. Jack London had a great line somewhere about its
    being better to be ashes than dust….

    Comment by David C. Smith - September 23, 2013 2:40 pm

  24. […] minding my own business, peacefully editing Connor Gormley’s Robert E. Howard tribute “Who Took the Flowers Out of my Prose?” and listening to him grouse about modern prose, when suddenly Conner took an abrupt right […]

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  26. […] a sentence. If any of you remember that post I did about the difference good prose can make, “Who Took the Flowers Out of my Prose?,” this is a pretty good working […]

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